Who's Counting: Math vs. Miracles

In the Mother Drexel case, two very sick children prayed to Drexel years after she died and they soon enjoyed spontaneous and unexplained recoveries. But such recuperations sometimes occur as do the more common spontaneous and unexplained deteriorations. Not always knowing what causes them does not mean they’re instances of divine intervention. In fact, scientists are frequently unable to ascribe a specific cause to either the contracting of a disease or a recovery from it. Even statistical tests and clinical trials conducted on large samples of people are sometimes insufficient to determine likely causes.

One can make similar remarks about the Fatima case. Prophecies can be so vague that many different interpretations might be given to them. It’s not particularly risky to predict that wars and mayhem will occur at some indefinite time in the future. If one really wanted to investigate the validity of prophecies, one would need more precise predictions and established, strict protocols for investigating them.

Likewise, if someone really wanted to search for a causal connection between prayers and cures, one would need to examine a very large number of cases, set time limits on the alleged cures, compare recovery rates of those who pray with those who don’t, and guard against self-deception and wish-fulfillment.

Clashing With Science

Another problem with proclaiming a miracle was noted a long time ago by David Hume, the 18th century Scottish philosopher. Whatever evidence exists that a certain phenomenon miraculously violates a scientific law is evidence as well that the scientific law in question is flawed or irrelevant.

If before the invention of the telephone, for example, someone heard the voice of a friend who was hundreds of miles away, one might consider this a miracle. The evidence for this miraculous event, however, would also be evidence that the physical laws that rule against the possibility (such as the speed that sound travels in air, let’s say) are wrong or don’t apply.

It’s become somewhat fashionable to say that religion and science are growing together and are no longer incompatible in any way. This convergence is, in my opinion, illusory. In fact, I don’t believe that any attempt to combine these very disparate bodies of ideas can succeed.

Since getting people to change their minds about these matters usually calls for something of a miracle, I’ll stop right here.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several books, including A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper and, most recently, I Think, Therefore I Laugh. His “Who’s Counting?” column on ABCNEWS.com appears on the first day of every month.

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